The Australia Day long weekend gave me the chance to get away from the computer, go camping and read more fabulous books by Australian Women Writers. Here’s 1 (and 1/2 reviews).

Before I delve into my main review, I have to confess I was a little behind in my 2012 reading and so my first long weekend holiday read was Anita Heiss‘ “Am I Black Enough for you?”. Reading this book, one of AWW’s most-reviewed, on Survival Day (26 Jan) gave me a chance to consider issues about idenitity and ‘authenticity’ in naming and being named. Heiss’ account of her upbringing, relationship to family and place, and her part in a race discrimination trial was told with honesty and humour, taking on many stereotypes about Indigenous Australia in the process. For me, Heiss’ book should be a must-read for young Australians and I hope her book is seen on secondary school reading lists in the near future along with other great tales about the plurality of Australian identity such as Melinda Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. Anita Heiss’ confessions about her dislike of camping did make me chuckle as I crawled into my tent to read and tried to ignore the mating calls of koalas keeping me awake!

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Coincidentally my other long weekend read, Robin de Crespigny’s “The People Smuggler” was nominated alongside “Am I Black Enough for you?” for a 2012 Human Rights Award for Literature (non-fiction). The People Smuggler was the eventual winner although I imagine judging for this award would have been extremely difficult.

Robin de Crespigny has done an incredible job of pulling together a story of one man, Ali al Jenabi, across several countries and over many years. Indeed Ali al Jenabi’s experiences could almost span several lifetimes. His life in Iraq makes for powerful but difficult reading, especially as stories of imprisonment and torture are recounted. I must confess to skipping pages as I found some sections hard to read. The eventual hardship in Iraq forced Ali to flee Iraq and the painfulness of his separation from family and the uncertainty of displacement are evocatively described. While images of refugee camps come to mind, the author’s ability to personalise a refugees’ plight made the book all the more engaging.

The second part of the book is probably the most controversial as Ali arrives in Indonesia hoping to find passage to Australia. His slide into becoming a so-called “people smuggler” is sympathetically told and it is to the author’s credit that all of the elements of what are sometimes highly complex events with multiple characters are clearly explained. I could sense the urgency of Ali’s plight to bring his family to Indonesia in the hope it would lead to finding safety in Australia.

Over the course of his time in Indonesia, Ali finds love, marries and becomes a father. But he also becomes increasingly drawn into the web of smugglers, boat captains and corrupt officials who all play a role in the people smuggling trade. Throughout we see, as Ali does, the humanity of individuals, many from his native Iraq, who have been displaced as refugees. In some ways this places his decision to become actively involved in people smuggling in context; a story that left me wondering what I would do in the face of similar problems.

The final section of the book covers Ali’s many trials in Australia – as a prisoner facing people smuggling charges, trying to help his family and daughter, and then life behind bars in immigration detention. With the asylum seeker issue fuelling much debate in the media and parliament last year, Robin de Crespigny has done an amazing job of presenting factual evidence about Ali’s trial alongside the human tale of Ali and his family. Never did I feel ‘led’ to a particular conclusion but I did come away with a strong sense of the futility of Ali’s years of prosecution and then detention. “The People Smuggler” is surely a deserving winner of the 2012 Human Rights Commission Award for Literature.

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Much like Heiss, de Crespigny addresses questions about authenticity and a person’s ownership of their own identity. Amidst much chatter of refugees and asylum-seekers as ‘illegals’, ‘boat people’ and ‘economic migrants’, Ali al Jenabi’s story told in “The People Smuggler” makes the reader question what we are told is the ‘truth’ about asylum seekers and displacement. Thanks to Robin de Crespigny we have a book I would highly-recommend, to help us make up our own minds on what will likely be a key 2013 election issue.